Blue Marble

Farms Kill Frogs

| Thu Jul. 3, 2008 5:35 PM EDT

734px-Bufo_marinus_from_Australia.JPG You might think a farm canal would be a better place for a frog than a supermarket drainage ditch. Not so. University of Florida zoologists find that suburban toads suffer fewer reproductive abnormalities than toads living near farms—where many possess both testes and ovaries.

Sure it sounds like good clean bi fun. But double tooling is ultimately a lethal attribute. Here's why. Normal male toads (toads are a variety of frogs) have thick, strong forelimbs. More of the intersex frogs (found only in ag areas) have thin, weak forearms. Plus intersex frogs have fewer "nuptial pads"—the scrappy skin on the feet used to grip females during mating. The likely end result: fewer tadpoles.

This is the first peer-reviewed study to compare wild toads from heavily farmed areas with those from partially farmed and completely suburban areas. Past studies have suggested a link between farm herbicides and sexual abnormalities in amphibians, whose populations are crashing globally.

The UF study finds that male toads are the most affected. Normally, males are brown and females are mottled with brown stripes. But males from ag areas are mottled and look like females. The more agricultural the site, the more feminized the males' reproductive organs and the less testosterone they produce.

"What we are finding in Bufo marinus might also occur in other animals, including other amphibian species and humans," says lead author Krista McCoy. "In fact, reproductive abnormalities are increasing in humans and these increases could partially be due to exposure to pesticides."

Another reason why organic is less expensive than the alternative.

Julia Whitty is Mother Jones' environmental correspondent, lecturer, and 2008 winner of the Kiriyama Prize and the John Burroughs Medal Award.

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Clean Energy Leaps Forward

| Wed Jul. 2, 2008 4:51 PM EDT

800px-Windenergy.jpg Think green energy isn't going to happen? Well, despite financial market turmoil, more than $148 billion was sunk into the global sustainable energy sector last year. That's up 60% from 2006.

According to the UNEP report, Global Trends in Sustainable Energy Investment 2008, climate change worries, growing support from world governments, rising oil prices and ongoing energy security concerns fueled another record-setting year of investment in renewable energy.

Wind attracted the most investment ($50.2 billion in 2007). Solar power grew most rapidly ($28.6 billion of new capital, at an average annual rate of 254% since 2004).

The first quarter of 2008 looked sluggish. But investments rebounded in the second quarter, even as global financial markets remained in turmoil. Venture capital and private equity for sustainable energy was up 34% above the second quarter of 2007.

"Just as thousands were drawn to California and the Klondike in the late 1800s, the green energy gold rush is attracting legions of modern day prospectors in all parts of the globe," says Achim Steiner, UN Under-Secretary General.

There's tons of gold waiting in the bottom of the oil barrel.

Julia Whitty is Mother Jones' environmental correspondent, lecturer, and 2008 winner of the Kiriyama Prize and the John Burroughs Medal Award.

Bad Math = More Extinctions

| Wed Jul. 2, 2008 4:02 PM EDT

gone_rhino_300x398.jpg We may be underestimating extinction risks by as much as 100-fold. The problem is that current extinction models treat all individual members as the same. You know, one polar bear is more or less a behavioral, programmed clone of the next polar bear.

Ooops. Not so. A new model finds that random differences—male-to-female sex ratios, size differences, behavioral variations—affect individuals' survival rates and reproductive success. These differences don't just ripple outward. They tsunami outward into the overall population. Consequently, extinction rates for endangered species can be orders of magnitude higher than conservation biologists previously believed.

The model developed by Brett Melbourne of Colorado University Boulder and Alan Hastings of the University of California Davis monitored populations of beetles in lab cages. "The results showed the old models misdiagnosed the importance of different types of randomness, much like miscalculating the odds in an unfamiliar game of cards because you didn't know the rules," says Melbourne.

Some high-profile endangered species like mountain gorillas are already tracked individually. But for many others, like stocks of fish, biologists only measure abundance and population fluctuations. "It's these species that are most likely to be misdiagnosed," says Melbourne. "We suggest that extinction risk for many populations… need to be urgently re-evaluated with full consideration of all factors contributing to stochasticity, or randomness."

The IUCN Red List tallies more than 16,000 species threatened with extinction worldwide. One in four mammal species, one in eight bird species and one in three amphibian species are teetering on the brink. The new study in Nature, "Extinction risk depends strongly on factors contributing to stochasticity," makes those numbers look tame.

Julia Whitty is Mother Jones' environmental correspondent, lecturer, and 2008 winner of the Kiriyama Prize and the John Burroughs Medal Award.

Forecast for Solar: Cloudy

| Tue Jul. 1, 2008 5:06 PM EDT

Solar_energy_power_266094_l.jpgNow that the Bureau of Land Management is deferring solar projects on public land, the forecast for solar energy seems a bit cloudy. What happened?

Just over a year ago, the BLM was actively encouraging solar projects to be shuttled through in a "timely manner." Then it teamed up with the Department of Energy "to assess the environmental, social, and economic impacts associated with solar energy development."

Perfect Storm of Perfect Plagues

| Thu Jun. 26, 2008 6:22 PM EDT

Doktorschnabel_430px.jpg Guess what else global climate change can do? Create a perfect epidemiological storm with enough power to take heretofore innocuous diseases and turn them into perfect plagues. A new study in Plos ONE reveals how extreme climatic conditions can alter normal host-pathogen relationships, causing a "perfect storm" of multiple infectious outbreaks to trigger epidemics with catastrophic mortality.

Outbreaks of canine distemper virus (CDV) in lions in 1994 and 2001 resulted in unusually high mortality of lions in Tanzania's Serengeti National Park and Ngorongoro Crater. In the past, CDV epidemics caused little or no harm to the lions. But the outbreaks of 1994 and 2001 were preceded by extreme droughts that caused Cape buffalo to become heavily infested with ticks. When the lions ate the buffalo, they consumed unusually high levels of tick-borne blood parasites.

In the drought years, the CDV suppressed the lions' immune systems and also combined with the heavy levels of blood parasites. The merger created a fatal synergy. In 1994 more than 35 percent of Serengeti lions died. About the same number perished in the Ngorongoro Crater in 2001.

Unspoken but implied: Our own little witch's brew of ticks and viruses is waiting for wetter or hotter or dryer or fierier years to come together and make us suffer too… The world is too complicated for the simpletons who've been running it and, alas, there is no bloodsucker that feeds on stupidity.

Julia Whitty is Mother Jones' environmental correspondent, lecturer, and 2008 winner of the Kiriyama Prize and the John Burroughs Medal Award.

Unable to Fire Entire EPA, White House Ignores Their Emails Instead

| Wed Jun. 25, 2008 3:02 PM EDT

tantrum%202.jpg

When you're at work, you probably sometimes get emails that you don't want to deal with. Maybe you missed a deadline and have yet to 'fess up, or are supposed to meet with your boss and know it's going to be ugly. But eventually you deal with it, because you're responsible and know you can't avoid the situation forever.

Unless, of course, you're the Bush White House, in which case you stick your fingers in your ears and start singing loudly and shouting "I'm rubber and you're glue!" every time your co-workers try to bring up the issue. From the New York Times:

The White House in December refused to accept the Environmental Protection Agency's conclusion that greenhouse gases are pollutants that must be controlled, telling agency officials that an e-mail message containing the document would not be opened, senior E.P.A. officials said last week. The document...ended up in e-mail limbo, without official status.

Now, "e-mail limbo" is certainly a concept with which the White House is familiar, though it's not totally clear how they played this one. Did they open the email in order to reply to it, but leave the attached report untouched? Or did they just take one look at the subject line and start a second email thread about how they weren't going to open the first one? They must have looked at something, because for the past week they've been pressuring EPA officials to cut huge sections of the supposedly unseen report. The final version, due out as early as next Wednesday, will contain no conclusions, only a general discussion of the issue. What is the White House trying to hide? According to the Times article, a conclusion estimating that the government could save up to $2 trillion over the next three decades by strictly regulating greenhouse gas emissions. You'd think an administration $400 billion in debt would be shouting that number from the rooftops.

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Everglades Wins Big

| Tue Jun. 24, 2008 9:07 PM EDT

333px-Historic_Everglades_Regions.jpg The state of Florida has pledged to buy up sugarcane farms to help restore the flow of the Everglades. For a bargain $1.75 billion, US Sugar will relinquish 300 square miles of its holdings south of Lake Okeechobee over the next six years.

Great news for the people of Florida, as well as for birds, alligators, crocodiles, and manatees. The agreement comes between Republican Governor Charlie Crist and US Sugar, reports the Miami Herald. It's at least partially the result of the South Florida Water Management District board voting seven months ago against the practice of backpumping (pdf) dirty farm runoff into Lake Okeechobee, which then flows south into the Everglades.

That vote was the result of a 2007 court victory by Earthjustice, when a federal judge ruled that backpumping violated the Clean Water Act.

The buy-out of US Sugar will not end the Everglades' troubles. Another 500 square miles of sugarcane farms owned by other companies remain in production. Yet the deal marks a revival of the Everglades restoration effort, the largest of its kind in the world, aimed at undoing flood-control projects that have been killing the Everglades for decades.


Condors Rescued From Wildfire

| Tue Jun. 24, 2008 3:43 PM EDT

400px-Condor_in_flight.JPG Eight endangered California Condors were evacuated by helicopter from their holding pens after the Gallery Fire (now part of the Basin Fire Complex) cut off the road into their facility. Seven of the rescued birds are less than a year old, and the eighth condor is their mentor.

The Herald of Monterey County reports that a three-person crew from the Ventana Wildlife Society was flown in by the Coast Guard, walked a mile from the drop point to the condors, and brought the birds back in carriers. After their helo flight, the condors were driven to Pinnacles National Monument.

Meanwhile, the National Interagency Fire Center reported yesterday that 1,080 new fires ignited in California over the weekend. You can see from their site how enormous the problem is. Some fires are actually complexes of 150-plus fires. Most are still zero percent contained.

Cooler weather is helping along the coast but let's face it, some of these fires are going to be burning for a long time. Maybe until snow falls.

The smoke blanketing northern California is moving east.

Julia Whitty is Mother Jones' environmental correspondent, lecturer, and 2008 winner of the Kiriyama Prize and the John Burroughs Medal Award.

Scientist on Warming: "We're Toast"

| Tue Jun. 24, 2008 1:03 PM EDT

James Hansen, director of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies, has been warning the US government about global warming for 20 years. Now the CO2 levels in the atmosphere have gotten so high that "we're toast if we don't get on a very different path," he told Congress yesterday.

When Hansen first testified to Congress about global warming, it was 1988 and a heat wave was sweeping across the East Coast. That year was the hottest year on record for DC, but fourteen of the 20 subsequent years have been even hotter. By his estimations, the Arctic will be completely ice-free by the summer of 2018. "The Arctic is the first tipping point and it's occuring exactly the way we said it would," he told senators. "This is the last chance."

Recycled Biofuel

| Mon Jun. 23, 2008 10:06 PM EDT

57031182_68ca6da51a.jpg A better way to grow biofuel crops is to re-use abandoned agricultural lands. Or farmlands that are less productive. Both are better than current practises: clearing wilderness and converting food farms to energy farms.

There are 1.5 million square miles of abandoned cropland and pastureland available around the world. Energy crops raised on these could yield up to 27 exajoules of energy a year—equal to 172 million barrels of oil. Yet even this would still satisfy only about 5% of global primary energy consumption—483 exajoules in 2005, and rising.

Better than nothing, you say. But only if it doesn't further aggravate climate change. The study by Carnegie Institution and Stanford University scientists used historical data, satellite imagery, and productivity models to estimate how to maximize the benefits from biofuels while also mitigating global warming. Recycling old farms yields the best atmospheric returns.

Julia Whitty is Mother Jones' environmental correspondent, lecturer, and 2008 winner of the Kiriyama Prize and the John Burroughs Medal Award.